The Magazine

Smugglers Galore

How Iran arms its allies.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By LEE SMITH
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An explosion in southern Lebanon last week destroyed what is believed to have been a Hezbollah weapons depot. This latest in a series of mysterious “accidents” in Hezbollah-controlled precincts proved, as one Israeli official wryly remarked, that those who “sleep with rockets and amass large stockpiles of weapons are in a very unsafe place.” With the Party of God’s overland supply route through Syria choked off by the 22-month-long uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Israel virtually in total control of the maritime route, Hezbollah’s stockpile is being systematically degraded.

Hamas militant with  a Belgian FN F2000

Hamas militant with a Belgian FN F2000

PHOTOS COURTESY OF HAMAS

Yet the arsenal of Iran’s other regional proxy force, Hamas, is growing. The Israeli Defense Forces’ campaign against Hamas last month in Gaza targeted Iranian missiles, including the Fajr-5, capable of reaching Tel Aviv and other points north, and destroyed most of them within the first hours of the conflict. But Hamas is already rearming, and it’s not clear that Israel or even Muslim Brotherhood-governed Egypt, which is ostensibly capable of controlling the Sinai tunnel networks through which Hamas receives its arms, can do much about it.

Israel’s next war with Hamas—a further confrontation is almost inevitable—may well feature not only Iranian missiles smuggled through Sudan, but NATO-quality small arms and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that come by way of Hamas’s most recent weapons supplier, post-Qaddafi Libya.

Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense also zeroed in on Hamas commanders, most notably Ahmed al-Jabari, Hamas’s chief of staff, responsible for the group’s military operations. It was Jabari who replaced Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, assassinated in a Dubai hotel room almost three years ago in an operation usually attributed to Israel. In a sense, then, Pillar of Defense began back in January 2010 in that most profligate of the United Arab Emirates—which is also a veritable weapons bazaar.

“It’s the Casablanca of the Middle East, with all sorts of shady characters, money laundering, and arms deals,” says Michael Ross, a former Mossad operations officer. “With the Mabhouh assassination, the UAE authorities had all this video feed of what were allegedly Mossad operatives moving in and out of Dubai, but what they didn’t show was footage of Mabhouh meeting with a banker, then with his contact from the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps].” According to Ross, Mabhouh’s briefcase was a treasure trove of information detailing what items Hamas procured from the Iranians and the logistics of getting them to Gaza.

Arms smuggling was a problem in Gaza long before Hamas took control, says Major (Res.) Aviv Oreg, formerly in charge of the al Qaeda and global jihad desk in Israel’s military intelligence service and now head of a private consulting firm specializing in terrorism, CeifiT. “In the past, there was a maritime route via Syria or Lebanon, and when the smugglers approached the location they’d put the weapons in large flotation devices with the hope that the current would take it ashore,” says Oreg. “Sometimes it got tangled up in fishermen’s nets.”

When the Israeli Navy interdicted the Karine A freighter in 2002 and stopped a large cache of Iranian-made weapons from reaching Gaza, it not only turned George W. Bush against Yasser Arafat for good, it also signaled that Israel had closed Iran’s maritime route to Gaza once and for all. And yet as Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza cleared the way for Hamas’s 2007 takeover, the outfit sought more sophisticated weapons, and Iran’s support. The question for Tehran was how to get arms to their Palestinian clients.

“The ships usually start in the port of Bandar Abbas,” says Oreg. “They come through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula, and crossing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, docking in Port Sudan.” Occasionally the Iranians will dock in Eritrea, “just to mix things up,” but their preferred point of entry is Sudan.

Sudan is critical, agrees Michael Ross. “This is where the parts for Iranian weapons are assembled. The guys in Gaza aren’t too swift in putting together complicated systems like the Fajr-5. Some assembly may be required when it hits Gaza, but the more complicated, high-tech aspects of the weapons systems are assembled in Sudan by Iranians, who have a large presence in Khartoum, at places like the al-Yarmouk factory.”

In October, an operation widely credited to Israel destroyed this key Iranian weapons depot. Other attacks on Sudanese soil attributed to Israel, such as the spring 2009 series of strikes on weapons convoys, have left some wondering what the government in Khartoum has to gain from painting a big target on its head for the IDF.

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